Every April I spend about 50 hours per week grading essays. That doesn't include other duties at my job. During those hours, I begin to take note of the good and bad habits of my students. As I grade I sit and ponder the personalities of my students: students who made an A in my class, students who do the bare minimum to pass, students who endure personal problems (out of their control) and end up with a B, students who fail and students who just disappear without explanation.
When I see the list of the few students who failed my class, it becomes crystal clear in my mind as to why they failed. I am sad for them. I am frustrated. My state of mind is much more serious and realistic when I am giving them their final grades to the optimism of the first day of class.
The following is what the realistic, end of semester Nathan Branson would say on the first day of my English class.
Write at least 3.5 pages on your essay (follow the directions).
Some students do not read what I write on the rubric. I assign a rubric for every essay our class write. The rubric carefully outlines how many pages to write “Your essay must be a minimum of 3.5 pages long.” At least 25% of the students will turn in a 3 pages or 3.25 pages. This drops most students down to a low A or B automatically.
Following the directions will get you a long way in my class. Students who pay attention to the small details in my class show they are paying attention. It shows they are ready to work. When I hand out the rubric and say to the class “Make sure you write at least 3.5 pages” they circle it on the rubric or make a reminder to themselves not to forget. Sometimes I will draw attention to these kinds of things in my lecture.
Every semester I see at least one student who is creative or intelligent who does not know how to follow directions. I can tell they are creative or intelligent by looking at one or two assignments they turn in. However, for every essay they turn in, they fail to turn in 2-3 homework assignments. There are 11 different reasons why intelligent students do this. But one thing is certain-------if they would follow the directions, they would have no doubt made an A. These students underachieve by making a C or they fail the class.
To all the smart students: learn how to follow directions on the rubric (such as write at least 3.5 pages). The smartest students are not always the most successful, but the students who pay attention to the details .
Attempting to do what is assigned is sometimes more important than whether it is right or wrong.
I worked at Home Depot for over 2 years while I was in grad school. I would typically work the 2nd shift from 1pm to 10pm. Whenever I showed up to work my boss Matt would hand me a piece of yellow notepad with an outlined list of tasks to complete.
I remember the first time he handed me the list. After I looked at it more carefully, I realized there were 2 tasks (out of 5) that I did not know how to do:
1.) Pack Down the chemical aisle
2.) Move the cinderblocks and planks from outside garden to the corner.
3.) Move the grill display from the front of inside of inside garden to the storage area.
4.) Re-stock the bricks in outside garden
5.) Bring out the pallets of new stock from receiving
I thought “What if I move the cinderblocks and planks to the wrong side of outside garden? Which cinderblocks do I move? What if I move the wrong cinderblocks and then I have to do the job twice?” And “Which storage area is he talking about? There are multiple storage areas.”
My boss was not there to explain to me exactly how he wanted it done. So, I was afraid of doing it wrong. I would typically do everything else on the list and then kind of ponder how to do the other stuff right. Wanting to do it perfect paralyzed me into doing nothing. That day I eventually just guessed and moved one set of cinderblocks and planks into the corner, as the directions said.
The following day at work I asked my boss about what I did and he said he would have done it slightly different, but overall he seemed satisfied with what I did. I began to realize it was more important that I attempted to do what was on the task list rather than over-analyze if I am doing it perfect. Sometimes we just need to go with what we know and do our best.
This principle applies 100% in my English class to homework. I want to see students get in the habit of taking the directions I’ve assigned to them and doing their best. Not worrying about whether they are doing it perfect. Perhaps guessing a little bit.
To say to themselves “Let me just try it out. I’ll see what happens” is always better than doing nothing at all. I find that in the work world employers want you to take what you’ve been assigned and “just try it out” on the job. This builds trust that you can figure things out on your own.
You can accomplish your dreams if you are willing to shut up and put in your time.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said: “We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have already done.” This Longfellow quote sums up the mind-set of an 18 year old college freshman. It is both the college freshman's hope and downfall.
Whenever I was 20 years old I filled out an application to work at a summer camp. One of the questions was “What do you feel like your calling in life is?” I wrote that I wanted to be a literature professor at a university. I explained why I would make a great literature professor and what difference I would make at the university. What I did not know was that to become a literature professor at a university would require me to take an extra 4 to 6 years of graduate school work after I graduated from UNCW. Back then, I assumed that I would either figure out some shortcut to become a professor or that they would be so impressed with Nate Branson, that I would automatically be hired.
At 20 years old, I felt capable of becoming a university professor. At the time I had completed a total of 5 English courses at UNCW. It sounded cool in conversation to say “I am going to be a literature professor.” But what I didn’t know was that getting through graduate school was going to be twice as hard as getting my bachelor’s degree. What I didn’t know that getting a full time English position would take me 3 and ½ years.
Today, I am an English professor at a community college. But I do not announce it to the world hoping others are impressed, I say it with humility. I tell this story to say it took serious work to achieve my dream.
What career do you dream of becoming? You need to be aware of a goal or vision you have for your
life. Write it down and be detailed about what you want to become. But what happens if you only write down what you are capable of doing? Or if you only announce to the world what you intend on becoming?
I’ve had students tell me that they want to be a nurse, but they don’t consistently show up for class. I’m not trying to be a dream crusher, but that student will not make the cut in a competitive nursing program here at our community college or at a university.
Put in the hours to make your dream happen. Make an A in my class so that when you apply for nursing school your GPA will be competitive. Dreaming big requires us to sacrifice our time for the sake of the dream.
You need to be clear with yourself about what larger goal attending community college will achieve.
For example, some people are attending community college because they want to transfer to a four year university. To qualify for acceptance into a four-year university, students must complete 30 credit hours at the community college. Therefore, a student who knows what they want will be able to make sacrifices to make sure they get the grades they need. If this student is presented with the choice to watch Netflix or go finish their ENG 111 essay, they would say to themselves “If I want to go to ECU next year, I must finish my essay rather than watching Nexflix.” It is not that watching Nexflix is bad, it is just that achieving the goal of going to East Carolina University is much more desirable in the long run.
Choosing the larger, more lasting goals is something we must push ourselves to do.
Aiming for large goals relates back to why you are student at a community college. The goals we set for ourselves is often related to what ancient philosophers refer to as “telos.” James K. A. Smith defines telos as:
"The place we unconsciously strive toward is what ancient philosophers of habit called our telos--our goal, our end. But the telos we live toward is nothing that we primarily know or believe or think about; rather our telos is what we want, what we long for, what we crave. . .It is a picture of flourishing that we imagine in a visceral, often unarticulated way---a vague yet attractive sense of where we think true happiness is found.”
For many students finding a career that helps give them purpose is what helps give them true happiness. All students have a telos, a vision of where they think true happiness is found. Students who have no idea about what they want to do as a career have a telos.
I believe that you are less likely to achieve true happiness (your goals) if you are not intentionally reminding yourself of what happiness is. There are so many other people in the world pushing us to adopt a vision of happiness that is not our own.
Therefore, identify what your telos is. What is your larger vision of what will bring you joy? After you identify that, connect it to why you are at community college this semester. This will fuel your fire when things get hard.
Read quotes that will motivate you (in times of dread, anxiety and procrastination).
At the college, mid-November and late April are two months full of dread. These are times whenever research is being completed for final essays. Cramming causes students to stay up late on Sunday nights and delay getting out of bed on Monday mornings.
If you don’t find a method for motivating yourself during early mornings of anxiety, and late night dread, you will struggle. Being tempted to procrastinate or feel hopeless is the norm.
How do I fight dread, anxiety and procrastination? I collect quotes that motivate me.
For the last 5 years I have kept a Word document on my computer that has my favorite quotes from various sources. Sometimes when I am reading a book, I just read them. These are largely quotes from every imaginable source. Some of them are from people I know, some of them are from famous authors. I have 45 pages of quotes I started in 2012. This is one big file. (Email me if you’d like me to send you the list.)
Then I post these quotes where I can see them. One I have on my fridge “We are all in the same boat, in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty” (G.K. Chesterton). I dread confrontation sometimes. Yet this motivates me to work with people whenever I disagree with them. This motivates me whenever I have to have a hard conversation with a co-worker or a student. Whatever the case, it motivates me to avoid procrastination and face my fears.
Words are logical. They help us buck bad moods. Words helps us to remind us of what is true about the world and keep an even head.